Russell and Duenes

Ronald Takaki: Hiroshima

with 2 comments

takakiImagine a man, when it all began, the pilot of “Enola gay” flying out of the shockwave on that August day. All the powers that be and the course of history would be changed forevermore. – Rush, Manhattan Project

[T]he USSR, depending on which historian you believe, would lose at least 11,000,000 soldiers (killed and missing) as well as somewhere between 7,000,000 and 20,000,000 million of its civilian population during the Great Patriotic War. – J.T. Dykman, The Eisenhower Institute

When the subtitle on a book about Hiroshima says, “Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb,” and the book is only 150 pages, one feels entitled to a little skepticism. Or maybe skepticism is not the right word. Suspicion of reductionism is probably more accurate. And I imagine it’s hard for any historian to avoid a certain reductionism when treating the United States’ use of atomic weapons, for it is a subject of momentous import, involving many brilliant, thoughtful, powerful and articulate people, all sinners, all with different influences and motivations which often conflict within the same person. Takaki is no exception. I say this because my reigning assumption about such matters is that the “whys” of it encompass many more aspects than we suppose, even if we are experts in the subject (which I am not; indeed, I’m not even a novice). I take this assumption from my understanding of human nature, such as it is.

Takaki’s answer to the “why” question seems to boil down to this: The United States did not drop the bomb mainly to expedite the end of the war with Japan (the popular/traditional notions of how many men our leaders thought we might lose by invading Japan being a myth); rather, we dropped the bomb because we were wedded to the idea of “unconditional surrender” and would not get off it, we wanted to impress the Russians with our weapon in the hopes that we might intimidate them, we had spent a lot of money on the Manhattan Project and needed to justify that expense by our use of the bomb, we had a unique racial hatred of the Japanese (that we did not have toward Germans) and Pearl Harbor fueled our bloodlust and desire for vengeance toward Japan, the “manifest destiny” idea that ran in our veins had hit the Pacific Ocean and needed a new territory and Japan fit the bill, and finally, President Truman worried that he might be thought a “sissy” and unmanly if he did not act decisively and toughly with Japan by dropping the bomb.

Based on the above claims, one of my good friends suspected I would hate Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima. On the contrary, despite what I take to be Takaki’s thin support for some of his theses, I found the book to be well-written, very engaging and, as my friend also said, possessed of insight and value. I would recommend it to others. Takaki certainly adds texture and nuance to certain aspects of our decision to “drop the bomb” that deserve consideration when thinking about what Hiroshima has meant for our nation and world.

I appreciated Takaki’s exploration of the various important players’ thoughts, namely, MacArthur, Byrnes, Leahy, Oppenheimer, Churchill, Groves, Stimson, and of course, President Truman himself. The quotes Takaki marshals in support of his thesis provide good material for reflection, particularly as to how human nature and one’s personal history play themselves out when confronted with decisions that will lead to untold human suffering and death. How does one face down the choice of whether or not to vaporize 100,000 people in an instant? Yet at the same time, how does one decide what the true human costs will be on into the future if that course is not taken? Does one retreat into demonizing and “racializing” one’s enemy, as we clearly did with the Japanese? Does one resort to rationalizations because facing the truth is just too much? Does one subconsciously act in ways designed to overcome one’s insecurities or to placate one’s prejudices? Likely the answer is “yes” to all of these, even though this justifies none of them. I particularly liked Takaki’s treatment of Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Stimson had profound and thoughtful misgivings about using the bomb with which I identified, and I think he was unjustifiably marginalized in the decision-making process.

I think Takaki is on to something when he talks about Truman’s desire to engage in what he calls “the diplomacy of masculinity.” Based on Truman’s own words, one sees that he wanted to be tough and decisive. He wanted both the Japanese and the Russians to know he was a “man’s man” and that he was not going to be pushed around. I suspect this motivation has come into play for all of our presidents who have had to confront an overwhelming military situation. No one wants to look weak. Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam come to mind. We may tend to give this short shrift as so much “psychobabble,” but to dismiss it is, I think, error. Pride and self-deception are two big things our Lord Jesus diagnosed about us, and we see them at work here.

Takaki is also right to consider our racial prejudices against Japan and our real fears of the Soviet Union and how those played into the decision. Takaki acknowledges, at some level, the wickedness of the Japan’s actions, but I believe he is right in arguing that part of our motivation for bombing them was our sense of superiority over those we took to be “beasts” and “monkeys.” Regarding the Soviets, we had seen them overrun Eastern Europe and we rightly identified them now as our main rival for world dominance. The Japanese were finished, one way or another, at this point in the war, and so there would be great pressure to make a kind of statement to Russia with our new weapon.

The book had another salutary effect on me, though Takaki may not have intended it. It reinforced for me the reality of our sinfulness and readiness to do evil before God and others, and the massive, unparalleled horror of this reality as it played out in World War Two. There is to my mind simply nothing like the 20th century – and World War Two in particular – in human history when it comes our desires to despise and destroy one another and our ability to carry it out on a massive scale. The barbarism of this war simply defies comprehension, even when we see what happened, for no one can truly see all that happened, much of which is still with us. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a terrifying and unspeakable destruction of human life. If one stops and tries to visualize the effects of that bomb as it incinerates tens of thousands instantly, and leaves untold others – along with buildings, plants and animals – to burn to death, and then the galling aftermath of radiation poisoning and death due to the devastation of the city’s infrastructure, one cannot fully take it in. It’s just emotionally crippling, if we feel in our bones that these are truly God’s image-bearers, as we are.

And yet, these bombings are only a small part of the horror. At the end of the war, practically all of northern Europe lay in ruins, with untold millions dead or maimed. At the least, something on the order of 26 million Soviets were dead. The Japanese homeland lay ablaze in utter destruction with its perished millions. Many other countries felt the brunt of our modern weaponry and vice (China, Phillipines, Australia to name a few), along with the U.S. and Canada. I experience a sick and anxious feeling inside me even as I contemplate it now. I fear we have lost this sense of what the war actually shows us about ourselves and our need for Christ’s redemption (which leads me to anxiously await David Berlinski’s book, The Best of Times, which he says will address something of this penchant for forgetting the bloodshed and inhumanity of the 20th century).

Having said all that, I found Takaki’s thesis wanting at points. He claims that the decision makers knew that Japan was beaten and that their estimates of what the death toll might be should we have to invade Japan was quite low (around 40,000 killed, rather than the oft-asserted 500,000). Yet what our leaders estimated about Japan’s willingness to fight on, and their actually willingness to do so, are two very different things. In my limited experience, military leaders are not very adept at making accurate predictions about future events while in the “fog of war.” Predictions do not show us reality. Further, I doubt that policymakers’ predictions about how many we thought we might lose during an invasion were static. That is, such predictions changed at various points. Indeed, there is evidence that Truman was influenced by the estimate higher losses in an invasion. Takaki simply waives off the generally accepted view without any real refutation of it.

Moreover, even if we were not going to lose half-a-million, what kind of destruction would we have wreaked on Japan had we invaded? Would we have killed another 300,000 to 400,000 Japanese on top of the men we would have lost? Would we have continued our aerial bombings? Can anyone really tell us? In other words, I don’t take it as fact that somehow the human death toll would have been lessened had we invaded. But would we be sitting here talking about America’s moral atrocity had we killed the same number of Japanese, only having done so by invasion instead of A-bomb?

On the point of America’s sticking too hard to “unconditional surrender,” I have to wonder if Japan’s only “condition” for surrender prior to the bomb was keeping its Emperor, as Takaki claims. Were they asking for nothing else? Takaki makes the Japanese sound like they were virtually in full obsequious submission mode, just asking for one little thing, and we wouldn’t give it because we were adamant about bombing them. I cannot sort out Takaki’s claim, because he provides me no good basis for doing so, since he ignores any evidence contrary to his own version. I have to believe that evidence exists, otherwise no one would be holding the traditional line against Takaki’s view.

Further, Takaki’s implication that, had we taken the advice of those who wanted us to share our atomic secrets with the Soviets, the Cold War arms race with the Soviets might have been averted, seems naive. The arms race was already on, and the Soviets apparently already knew our progress on atomic weaponry. I cannot see the two countries coming to some sort of mutual disarmament agreement, or agreement not to develop further atomic weapons, had we only shared with the Soviets. Stalin was a mass murdering, lying, conniving, hideous thug of the worst order, one of the worst men in history. The idea that sharing anything with him would purchase peace is nonsense in hindsight. This seems to be the unfounded utopianism of much modern academic leftism infecting Takaki’s analysis.

I would have liked to see more support for Takaki’s thesis that Pearl Harbor created such a level of bloodthirsty hate for the Japanese that it propelled us inexorably toward dropping the bomb on them. Again, I did not live during that period, and I have not studied it, but if I am to believe that we wanted to “get Japan” as badly as Takaki suggests, I believe I need more evidence than he presents. Yes, the Japanese attacked us, and yes, our military leaders likely wanted to “repay” them in some way, but I don’t think he made the connection between that and dropping the bomb. I am sure it played a role and it is good to consider it, yet it is something I would expect in just about any war. To be fair, the book is very short, but this is a major argument for Takaki.

Takaki’s thinest argument, in my opinion, is his argument concerning race and American’s desire to have a “new frontier” to conquer now that we could no longer conquer any more of North America. Takaki writes: “From the very beginning of what would become the United States, race has been a significant influence.” The problem with this statement is, I’m not sure what it is supposed to mean. Takaki goes into an extended discussion of our history of race relations, mostly by stringing along racist words and actions that dot our historical landscape. But this begs the question, what about this makes our country unique? I would take it to be true at some level that “from the very time of Babel and onward, race has been a significant influence” in war. And undoubtedly I could pull in all sorts of racist quotes from every people and nation under the sun. Does this mean that race had nothing to do with our decision to bomb Japan? I think it likely did have something to do with it. But Takaki has not shown that it was a factor more influential than other factors. His evidence is mostly anecdotal to Truman.

Takaki’s evidence for our need for a new frontier is even more scant. Asserting that the “idea of democracy often embraced an expansionist vision for the new nation” and talking about Matthew Perry sailing his ships into Tokyo Bay is simply not enough to prove that we were looking for new areas of imperialist expansion. Again, I’m willing to believe this played some kind of motivational role, but probably not the one Takaki supposes.

Obviously volumes have been written about the United States’ use of atomic bombs. I’ve read very little on it in my life, but it does not appear to me that Takaki has exploded any myths. What he has likely done, or at least done for me, is to add some layers and additional insight to the terrible events. I am not without my biases and prejudices, and I’m a product of my age, as is anyone. I appreciate Takaki’s helping me look at things from another angle, but I am also wary of historians taking events that are fraught with tremendous emotional, social, political and spiritual freight, who then seem to be overblowing the influence of “racism” on them. In my view, race does not color everything in our decision-making to the extent that 21st century academics and journalists say it does. I would just assume give the total reality (and all the players involved) its due weight when it comes to complex issues like Hiroshima and the Second World War in general. I find it helps me see again the totality of our need for Christ in every way, and it provides the greatest possible moral clarity, which is something of great value today, particularly among university students.



Written by Michael Duenes

March 22, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Duenes, History, Literature

2 Responses

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  1. I think this is a pretty fair assessment of his book. I have no doubt that racism played into the decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First and foremost, racism played a tremendous role in the general thinking of the day. I find great discrepancy in our Foreign Policy decision to put Japanese-Americans in Internment Camps, but not Italian or German-Americans. Frankly, no one should have been interned. Also, we didn’t use atomic weaponry on Berlin or Rome (or any other city in Germany and/or Italy). Instead we used it decisively on Japan. I think Pearl Harbor plays into this decision as well, and I agree with Takaki that an American desire for a more immediate end to the war precipitated the bombs being used so that the Soviets couldn’t get to Japan to divide it up like they did in Germany and Korea. In any event, atomic weaponry is a pretty harsh reality. Nuclear weaponry is a pretty harsh nightmare.

    russell and duenes

    March 26, 2015 at 9:08 am

    • I generally agree, although I feel very confident that had Germany still been in the war when we developed the bomb, and looked like they were willing and able to fight on, we would have had little compunction about dropping atomic bombs on them as well. We’ll never know. Of course, no one should have been interned, and I don’t doubt that the Japanese were viewed with more disdain, particularly on the west coast, than were Germans. All that to say, we agree that racism played a role, perhaps a significant one, but Takaki’s line of reasoning was not entirely convincing to me. I felt that his argument amounted to: 1) America is overwhelmingly racist in general because read the quotes I produced, 2) the propaganda signs of WW2 showed we viewed Japanese as monkeys and we did no such thing with the Germans, and 3) therefore, race played a huge role in dropping the bombs. This is too easy, in my view.

      I also agree with you about our fear that we’d have to cede parts of Japan as we had to do with Germany if the Russians got into it. And we are, of course, lockstep in agreement that nuclear weaponry is beyond a nightmare. To think that we have weapons that at least 100 times more powerful than the ones we dropped on Japan is utterly galling.


      russell and duenes

      March 28, 2015 at 9:43 am

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